Martyred Monks and Racist Cops Speak a Universal Language at the Box Office

Two faith-based movies hit the box office this past weekend, offering a glimpse of the life of sacrificial love through two distinct perspectives – from monks to laypeople.

David Evan's "The Grace Card" and a limited release of Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men" left audiences with a bevy of mixed reactions, the latter receiving more critical acclaim and praise than the former.

While "The Grace Card" attempted to look at the ever-elusive concept of grace wrapped in a racially tense relationship between two cops, "Of Gods and Men," which was based on a true story of seven martyred French monks, unveiled the radical cost of love in the midst of rising religious violence.

Michael Joiner joined the cast of "The Grace Card," as Mac, a white cop with race issues and an ensuing bitterness over the murder of his son. When he is forced to partner with the black minister turned police officer Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom) they are both confronted with overcoming their prejudices and finding grace and forgiveness through difficulty.

The question for Mac was: Could he accept grace from a God he abandoned and a man he detested?

Director David G. Evans, a successful optometrist in Memphis, tapped into his 15 years of experience in producing Calvary Church's annual passion play to create the film, telling Christian Cinema that the message of the film was universal: don't let anger destroy you.

"No matter what city, state or country you live in, we're all prone to things like anger, hate and resentment. That's why I think it's easy for people to get drawn into the story."

He continued, "It's real life. It's gritty … [People] see the dilemmas they're facing and how they sort through things with God's grace."

Through characters like Grandpa George, played by Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr., grace is continually introduced and re-introduced. "We hope that people take that physical Grace Card and put it to use to make changes in relationships that are broken," stated Evans.

While some found the movie too contrived and predictable, the film gained grace from its stellar cast and honest moments of conversation between the characters.

As much as "The Grace Card" was critiqued for its overwrought plot, "Of Gods and Men" achieved just what the former could not – simplicity.

Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Film Festival, "Of Gods and Men" portrays daily monastic life set in a rural village and follows eight Cistercian monks who live in harmony with their surrounding Muslim neighbors, based partly on the free outpatient clinic they provided.

The monks pray, sing, heal the sick, cook, and go about their daily activities unhurried – in a slow, steady and almost meditative pace.

More importantly, the monks are cast as imperfect and completely humane believers, showing an authentic faith, which is oftentimes wrought with impatience, fear and doubt.

When the Islamic fundamentalists and the Algerian military painfully interrupt the quiet and steadfast life of the monks, they must decide: should they leave or stay and protect their flock, come what may. Until the very last minute, the monks in the film are seen wrestling with this decision.

Loosely based on the 1996 kidnapping and subsequent murder of seven members of the Trappist Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance living in Tibhirine, Algeria, all seven monks were eventually beheaded reportedly by an Islamic fundamentalist group. Refusing to leave despite the growing violence during the Algerian Civil War, the Cistercians continued their work until their death.

Hoping to share the story of the Trappist brothers, Henry Quinson, who translated the novel bearing the true story of the monks and personally knew two of the martyrs, was asked by Beauvois to help recreate the atmosphere of the monastery.

Quinson spent two months on set with the director and cast and led the actors to his old monastery where they could study in detail, the real life of monks.

"What I hope is that this movie will help people reconnect with what is best in the Christian tradition, which is essentially the gospel, Jesus, the holy spirit that makes us brothers and sisters all around the world," Quinson told the Montreal Gazette.

"I wanted the film to be faithful to the brothers, to express what they expressed, [and] to make people understand why they had wanted to stay in Algeria."

"I hope people will respond to it as a very universal film," added the producer, Etienne Comar, to BBC.

"The question, whether to stay or to leave a situation, is one everyone can relate to," Comar expressed. "Every one of these monks made a personal decision to stay, and it was very courageous. I don't know if I could have done the same. Yet they say, 'there is no better proof of love than to die for people.'"

Like "The Grace Card," "Of Gods and Men" claims universality in its themes and message, and hopes to get audiences rethinking about the decisions made and paths taken essentially because of love – in this case, with the desire to reflect a greater love.

Relayed by John Mulderig of CNS' Media Review Office, Director Beauvois of "Of Gods and Men" finds a path to the heart of the gospel through simplicity, a compassionate sense of brotherhood, and an atmosphere of prayer enriched by sacred music and potent silence.

"Of Gods and Men" was named the best film at France's 36th annual César Awards, equivalent to the Academy Awards.

"The Grace Card," though it may not garner any major nominations or wins, shares and spreads a similar message to the award-winning "Of Gods and Men" – the power of God's love and the struggle to reconcile that love during hardship.

Both films ultimately make an effort to bring to light the often overlooked or rather neglected tenets and fruit of true faith: love and restoration.

"The Grace Card" and "Of Gods and Men" are both rated PG-13 and are in limited theaters now. "The Grace Card" currently grosses $1.1 million dollars in the U.S., while "Of Gods and Men," released only on three screens in the U.S. earned $67,000, with a worldwide gross of over $19.6 million dollars.